[OPINION] A legacy that speaks for itself

There are moments in life when integrity simply trumps the tawdry and the unethical.

In late May this year, deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke retired in an emotional farewell ceremony presided over by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng at the Constitutional Court.

It was a day to set aside the unethical tawdriness that has come to define South African public life in so many ways.

Moseneke and Mogoeng would have had every reason to despise each other.

After all, Moseneke was overlooked for the position of chief justice. Many believe this was a political manoeuvre by President Zuma and his acolytes. Moseneke could possibly not be trusted given what some in the ruling party saw as his critical comments on the state of the nation.

Most who attended Mogoeng’s JSC interview remained deeply concerned and sceptical about his commitment to the Constitution and his stance on women and rape.

And so, it was with trepidation that we watched the intellectual heavyweight Moseneke sidelined and Mogoeng assume the top job. Yet, Mogoeng is an ethical man and has grown in stature. Certainly the manner in which he dealt with the Nkandla judgment - a moment where weaker men and women might well have floundered - was exemplary.

And so at the farewell, both men were charged to reflect on the ConCourt and, naturally, their relationship.
As Mogoeng rightly said, Moseneke might have chosen not to continue doing his job when overlooked, but he chose the high road and did so with distinction.

But the most significant comment was Moseneke’s reply to Mogoeng when he said, “Your integrity is without question. I say to the nation you are a safe pair of hands as I make my last salute to you”.

There was no dry eye as Moseneke battled through his final words, himself holding back tears. For one brief moment, we had a real glimpse of what a South Africa might look like if we had leaders of integrity. We basked in Moseneke’s stature and in Mogoeng’s generosity of spirit and humility. It’s the kind of country we can be.

In his recently released memoir My own liberator, Moseneke provides insight into his own remarkable life, the culmination of which was that farewell in late May this year.

His was a life of discipline and suffering yet never one of self-pity. Moseneke was far too focused on the future to wallow - and dare one say too grand even at a young age.

The memoir is intensely personal as Moseneke traces his family history, his marriage to his ‘soul-mate’ Kabonina, the birth of his children and the loss of his beloved son Bo. One’s sense always is that Moseneke is as much family man as legal man.

He provides detailed and beautiful descriptions of his childhood years, at the hands of a stern yet loving father and a mother he describes as a ‘queen’. It is his description of the quotidian that stands out most; his visits to his grandparents, his relationships with his siblings, his short stay at Kilnerton School and his mother’s love of cooking and the great family meal.

His full happy childhood years come to an abrupt end when he was imprisoned on Robben Island at the age of 15 for ‘sabotage’. 15. Yet, Moseneke and his fellow island inmates even then started dealing the decisive blow to the apartheid regime by educating themselves until they could no more.

The book describes the young Moseneke learning Latin declensions with the help of Reverend Stanley Magoba.

Moseneke describes being schooled in the proverbial ‘university of life’ by many now famous islanders.

His was a lifetime of scholarship and discipline that would stand him in good stead as a young lawyer and also as an advocate who eventually took silk and rose to the highest level of his profession.

After reflecting on his rich and colourful life Moseneke asks whether it all was in vain - both his personal struggle against apartheid and the larger one fought by his comrades. He asks this against a backdrop of our current South African malaise of poverty, inequality and rising unemployment.

For Moseneke it was not in vain yet he poses serious questions about leadership and levels of corruption in South Africa, specifically by way of tenderpreneurship.

So, reflecting on his Moseneke’s dignified and principled life, one looks back to that day in late May when the legal profession and the ConCourt bade farewell to this giant of our country. But it was not only Moseneke who showed his measure that day. It was Chief Justice Mogoeng too.

Moseneke and Mogoeng’s conduct stands in stark contrast to the daily utterances of politicians, so unable to go beyond the narrow political fray and power mongering.

In Parliament name-calling is a regular occurrence and untruths are uttered with increasing boldness. This past weekend President Zuma gave a long and rambling speech declaring that he is ‘no thief’ and that in fact he knows those who are pilfering, but will tell us when the time is right. What self-serving talk is this, one has to ask? What leadership is Zuma displaying when he speaks with a forked tongue?

Our country finds itself politically paralysed on Zuma’s watch and we are grappling for leadership and answers. The ConCourt itself, like all our institutions, will face difficult days. It has thus far survived the political challenges and navigated them with wisdom.

Some build up while others destroy. Moseneke’s legacy speaks for itself - the best chief justice we never had, perhaps yes. But more than that, he is a man of integrity. In that alone is a sobering message for our politicians whom we find so seriously wanting as their own lack of integrity ironically stands in the way of creating an equal and just society for the poor on whose behalf they pretend to speak.

_Judith February will be in conversation with former deputy Chief Justice Moseneke on 28 November at Artscape Theatre in Cape Town to celebrate the launch of his memoir. _